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Authors: Constance C. Greene

The Ears of Louis

BOOK: The Ears of Louis
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The Ears of Louis

Constance C. Greene

TO REBECCA
,
MAURA
,
AND JUDITH SULLIVAN

1

Louis had been doing fine in life until he hit first grade. He could crack his knuckles really loud, he could skip a stone over the water so it bounced five, sometimes six, times.

He also wasn't bad at mumblety peg.

That was four years ago.

Then cousin Marge came calling from Cincinnati. She and Louis' mother were drinking tea in the living room when he got home from school.

“My, my,” cousin Marge said, peering sharply at him, “haven't seen you since you were a pup. You've grown some but not as much as I would've thought.”

“I was never a pup,” Louis said.

“Where
do
you suppose he got such big ears?” cousin Marge said, as if he hadn't spoken. “Certainly not from
my
side of the family.”

“Louis' ears aren't big,” his mother said in a stiff voice. “Besides, remember Clark Gable.”

“Who's Clark Gable?” Louis asked.

“He was a famous movie star and very handsome,” his mother said. “He always got the girl.”

The last thing in the world Louis wanted was to get the girl. Still, a famous movie star.

Next, Louis could remember sliding down the slide at school. He closed his eyes against the rush of air and the ground crowding up at him. It was like flying.

“Hey, Elephant Boy,” a voice said, “you'd better watch it. The wind gets tangled up in those ears, you might wind up in Alaska.”

Louis had opened his eyes to a ring of mouths, all opened wide, laughing. He had put his hands over his ears to shut out the sound, or maybe to hide them. He wasn't sure. All he knew was they were laughing at him.

Louis thought that if he kept quiet and pretended he didn't mind, they'd stop and life would be as it had been before.

What made it worse was you'd never notice his mother and father's ears, his brother Tom's were teeny and his baby sister's you could hardly see, they were so small. It was a wonder she heard anything at all.

Some days were worse than others. On a bad day, Louis went home and kicked his bed until his toe throbbed. Then he hid the blanket Tom couldn't go to sleep without and once, he even punched his baby sister in the stomach. Her stomach was so fat she hardly felt a thing. She blew spit bubbles at him which made him madder than before.

Louis started taping his ears to the side of his head with Scotch tape. He'd wait until Tom fell asleep in the next bed. He didn't want Tom to know. When he'd finished taping, he'd kneel down beside his bed and pray to God to make his ears small and his muscles big. In the morning, his ears were still big and his muscles small.

It was a bad combination.

Skinny Ernie was the worst. He'd lie in wait behind a tree, then pop out, shouting, “You're some sweet kid, Sugar Bowl!”

Louis would crack his knuckles, yell “Race you!” and run like the wind. Away from one tormentor and into the path of another.

“Dumbo, Dumbo, how's about a sack of peanuts for lunch?” someone else would taunt.

That was why Louis needed big muscles. To knock their blocks off.

After times like these, Louis always had the same dream. In it, he was winning a race. He was passing everybody, he was way out ahead. He was first crossing the finish line. Before he could stop himself, he took off into the air, the wind caught in his ears, and he dipped high and low, like a kite, on his way to Alaska.

Down below, they were laughing again. The sound billowed up at him and his face was hot with shame. When he woke, his mother was standing by his bed.

“What's the matter, Louis? You were shouting in your sleep. Are you all right?” she asked anxiously.

“I'm O.K.,” Louis mumbled, so she'd go away and leave him alone. “I'm fine.”

2

Louis' friend Matthew lived far out in the country in a house so old the floors sloped. When Louis went to visit, he and Matthew put out their arms to balance themselves as they ran through the dining room into the downstairs bedroom. The windows were made of many panes of glass which had bubbles in them and there were wooden shutters which locked on the inside. Matthew said they were Indian shutters. Settlers locked them when the Indians attacked. Sometimes Louis and Matthew crouched down low in front of the windows, peering out into the night, imagining they saw a man carrying a tomahawk behind every tree. The sound of the television in the kitchen was very reassuring.

The fireplaces in Matthew's house were so large both Louis and Matthew and Jenny, Matthew's sister, could all stand upright inside. Matthew's room was on the third floor. It had only one window but that window looked out at an apple tree. That made up for a lot of things. Matthew had pried up a piece of one of the wide floor boards. Underneath was a space about six inches long and six inches wide. Just the right size to hide things in. It held some dried worms from last year, a box of marbles, a set of false teeth, three old eyeglass frames without glass and a number of other treasures.

Louis and Matthew talked very little. Matthew's father called them “the silent wonders.” They sat on the bank of the river that flowed through Matthew's back yard for hours, staring into the water, counting stones on the river bottom. Or shading their eyes, like Daniel Boone, looking out into the woods for deer or a rattlesnake. Once in a while, they'd drop a string with a worm attached into the water, hoping for a fish to bite.

Once, Matthew told Louis, he'd found a heron with a broken wing standing in the river. He and his father had thrown an old sheet over the heron's head to keep him from panicking, and had taken him to the Humane Society.

“What happened to him?” Louis wanted to know.

“Probably when the wing got better, they let him go,” Matthew said. Louis hoped so. Matthew was an authority on wild life. He read books about bears and turtles and beavers. Bears sleep six months at a stretch and deer shed their antlers and grow a whole new pair, he told Louis.

Every day after school Matthew set his Havaheart traps. He had two, one very small to catch rats, weasels, and chipmunks. The other, a birthday present, was bigger.

“With that one,” Matthew said, “I might get a muskrat or a skunk.” Louis and Matthew often watched a muskrat family, father and mother leading the way, swim along the river bank sedately, in single file, the babies in a neat row, until they came to their home, a hole burrowed into the river bank. Louis thought watching that muskrat family was one of the best things he had ever done.

Matthew never called anybody names. He took people for what they were. He never got wild and crazy, like some kids, running and shrieking and hitting people on the head. But the best thing about him was the way he looked. He had the roundest face Louis had ever seen. Matthew looked, Louis thought, like the man in the moon. Or like pictures he'd seen of the man in the moon in old storybooks. Before the astronauts got up there and found out there weren't any living creatures on the moon. Louis was sorry to hear that. But maybe there were men who'd got word the astronauts were on their way so they hid in a crater or something. Matthew agreed with him that this was a possibility.

Matthew was round all over. He had round pink cheeks and round gray eyes and a round stomach. Even his nose holes were round. If Louis could've looked like anyone he wanted, he would've chosen to look like Matthew.

Last time he'd gone to play at Matthew's, Louis had worn his football helmet. He'd decided to wear it all the time to hide his ears. Anyway, it was football season so he had a good excuse.

They got some cookies and milk and took them to the river bank. Louis kept his helmet on while he ate.

“Why do you keep that thing on all the time?” Matthew asked.

“Because I'm sick and tired of being called Dumbo and Elephant Ears and all that junk,” Louis said.

Matthew looked at the water.

“Don't pay any attention to them,” he finally said. “I think your ears are nice.”

“Why?” Louis said.

“Well,” said Matthew, “when the sun shines through them, they're all pink and everything.”

“Oh,” said Louis.

3

One day right after school started, Louis' mother bought him three new turtleneck shirts. He wore the yellow one first. At lunch time, he hooked his new shirt over his ears and tucked it under his chin while he ate his egg salad sandwich.

“What a slob!” skinny Ernie said. He unwrapped his marshmallow fluff sandwich. “Where'd you get such a pair of handles?” Ernie said, his mouth full of marshmallow fluff.

Talk about slobs. If the bell hadn't rung just then, Louis might've pushed the second half of Ernie's sandwich in his face.

Louis had orders to wait for Tom to walk him home. Tom was six and afraid of lots of things. Big dogs, roller coasters, and thunder and lightning among them.

Louis walked so fast that day Tom had a tough time keeping up. When they got home, Louis' mother asked him if he'd go next door to Mrs. Beeble's to borrow an onion.

There was nothing in the world Louis liked better than to be sent on an errand to Mrs. Beeble's. Except for visiting Matthew. But he had had a hard day and he felt like giving his mother guff.

“I don't like onions,” he said.

“We're having stew and you can't have stew without an onion,” his mother said. She smiled at him. “You look beautiful in your new shirt, Louis. But you'd look even more beautiful if you didn't have egg salad all over your front. Why don't you go and change into another shirt?”

“Oh, Mom,” Louis turned the corners of his mouth down and frowned. He pretended he didn't like it when his mother said he looked beautiful. Mothers thought their kids were beautiful even if they were as ugly as sin. Still, he couldn't help smiling. He took the stairs three at a time and put on his new blue turtleneck and his football helmet and went next door to see Mrs. Beeble.

BOOK: The Ears of Louis
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